The cruelty incentive: judging negatively to appear intelligent

We live in a time of great changes in our societies. Organizations must continue to innovate to succeed in a changing society, which requires leaders and managers to foster a culture that fosters creativity and innovation and to continue to explore new ways to innovate and grow. If innovation is also important in your organization, it can be useful to take note of the cruelty incentive.

The cruelty incentive

About 40 years ago, Teresa Amabile introduced in 2 publications the problem of the “cruelty incentive” in creativity in organizations. This means that insecure individuals have an incentive to tear down other people's ideas to gain intellectual status, but this can be detrimental to creativity. Positive feedback and a supportive environment are important for fostering creativity, but the cruelty stimulus can actually lead to negative feedback and a lack of support, which can hinder creativity.

Negative judgment to appear intelligent

The first paper by Amabile & Glazebrook (1982) conducted two experiments that showed that when raters felt insecure about their intellectual status or expected their audience to have a higher status than them, their ratings became more negative and critical. However, the article does not examine whether more negative raters are perceived as smarter than more positive raters.

Negative was experienced as more intelligent

In the second article (Amabile, 1983) Amabile conducted two experiments to determine whether negative raters are actually perceived as smarter than positive raters. She took book reviews from the New York Times and modified them to be either negative or positive. Participants were asked to rate the intelligence and competence of the two reviewers, and the negative reviewers were rated smarter than the positive ones. Amabile called her article “Brilliant but cruel” to indicate that cruelty is a way for evaluators to appear brilliant when judging other people's ideas.

Cruelty incentive undermines creativity

Researcher Justin M. Berg suggests that the “cruelty incentive,” which rewards people for criticizing and rejecting other people's ideas, may lead to undervaluation of creative ideas (Berg, 2020). His own research shows that the tendency to cruelty can lead to underestimation of the most creative ideas of others.

Predicting the success of creative ideas

A relevant study in this context concerned the circus industry, with companies such as Cirque du Soleil (Berg, 2016). This research was about “creative forecasting”, or the ability to predict the outcome of new ideas. Circus professionals predicted the success of new circus acts with audiences, and the accuracy of their predictions was tested with a large group of audience members.
The main comparison in the study was between the role of creator and that of manager. In many creative industries, managers' judgments are critical because they select which ideas will and will not go into production. Designers are expected to generate new ideas, but have no say in the selection of these ideas.

The creators predicted better than the managers

Interestingly, the study results showed that creators were more accurate than managers in predicting the success of other creators' ideas. However, creators were not good at evaluating their own ideas – they overestimated their value. But when it came to their peers' ideas, the creators were more accurate than the managers. Managers were statistically no better than a layman with no expertise in the circus industry.
Creators' advantage over managers was greatest for the most novel ideas, as managers underestimated them while creators were more likely to accurately estimate their value.

Divergent thinking vs. convergent thinking

A follow-up experiment found that the advantage of designers over managers in accurately predicting the success of creative ideas may be due to the nature of their respective roles. Creators can benefit from their emphasis on divergent thinking (idea generation) in their role, making them more open to the new ideas of others. In contrast, managers' emphasis on convergent thinking (evaluation of ideas) can make them worse at evaluating ideas because they miss out on the benefits of divergent thinking.


The cruelty incentive means that people harshly criticize others' ideas in order to appear smarter and gain intellectual status. While this may work in the short term, this solution is not sustainable and not in the public interest. Over time, the cruelty stimulus can stifle the creativity of themselves and others in the organization.
Justin Berg suggests that benevolent evaluators can produce a more productive self-fulfilling prophecy by balancing positive and negative thinking, encouraging risk-taking, constructive feedback, and intrinsic/prosocial motivation. This ultimately promotes creativity and can mutually reinforce each other with benevolence and creative brilliance. When evaluating new ideas, pessimism may seem profound in the short term, but in the long term both pessimists and optimists may end up with the level of creativity they expected.

My reflections

Some reflections from my part:
  • The cruelty incentive could also play a role in how people respond to social media sites. The negativity on social media may be partly explained by the cruelty stimulus: perhaps the negative commenters hope to appear intelligent by denouncing others' ideas.
  • Negative judgment may generate a perception of intelligence, but this does not mean that it is an actual manifestation of intelligence, or that it increases your actual intelligence. The question is how much you gain in the long term by appearing intelligent. An actual attitude of intelligence seems more rewarding to me. (also read: Cynicism exposed: the myth of the intelligent cynic)
  • I suspect that the cruelty stimulus is more prevalent in fixed mindset cultures than in growth mindset cultures. Investing in a growth mindset culture seems to me to be a useful countermeasure to the cruelty incentive. (Read more: Organizational Mindsets Predict Confidence and Engagement).
  • It seems wise not to leave the selection of creative ideas for innovation to managers alone. A participatory decision-making process that includes creators seems better because creators tend to be better at predicting the future success of creative ideas than managers.